These days, it seems like anything written before Mozart has to be played by a specialised period ensemble. Even though period orchestras have their advantages, it was nice to see the Oslo Philharmonic veer a little from their steady diet of 19th-century symphonies and look a little further back in time. Along with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, orchestra and conductor Eivind Aadland performed pieces by Bach and Gabrieli – music too seldom seen on orchestral concert programmes.

Camilla Tilling © Camilla Tilling
Camilla Tilling
© Camilla Tilling

Giovanni Gabrieli’s Symphoniae Sacrae is a collection of instrumental and choral motets, written especially for the acoustics of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. In two of the 8-part instrumental Canzone, the Oslo Philharmonic woodwind (oboes and bassoons) and brass (trumpets and trombones) sections showed admirable ensemble playing, with especially impressive intonation. There were some balance issues, and the trumpets in particular had a tendency of drowning out the more elaborate oboe ornaments. Still, these pieces – fallen firmly though they have into the domain of historically informed performance, cornetts and sackbuts – deserve more than the occasional outing.

The first movement of Bach’s solo cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, an exuberantly virtuosic aria exalting God, has become something of a coloratura soprano warhorse. The rest of the cantata remains rather underperformed, with only the last movement mirroring the trumpet-tinged bravado of the opening. This was Camilla Tilling’s first performance of the cantata, and despite commendably clear coloratura in the outer movements, it did seem somewhat unfinished.

Tilling took a while to warm up, her tone spreading in the higher register. Her diction was unclear throughout, especially so in the fourth movement chorale, where the soprano’s simple, unadorned melody is carried forth by three intensely virtuosic string parts. Still, coupled with the much lower fourth movement solo in the Mahler symphony, it is understandable that she would struggle with the high-flying runs of the Bach cantata. The final movement “Alleluja” was interesting, in that it sounded less like spirited prayer and more like fervent fanaticism, but this was not what the preceding movements had built up to.

The lightness and flair of the Gabrieli and Bach were surprisingly mirrored in the ironic playfulness of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The first movement began quietly unassuming, yet it slowly kept growing in size and intensity. Despite the surface liveliness, Aadland never let the more sinister sides of the piece out of sight. Apart from some dodgy flute playing throughout the movement, the playing was uniformly excellent, especially the fearless first horn solos.

The second movement bobbed along almost sardonically, and by the end, it had turned into almost comical, or at least burlesque, portents of death. Although the scordatura violin solo was slightly too out of tune, it eventually agreed on a key with the rest of the orchestra. In the slow third movement, it was as if Aadland and the Oslo Phil had achieved weightlessness, floating around in space before suddenly lashing out into a glorious apotheosis.

Mahler’s first four symphonies take much of their inspiration from the composer’s own settings of poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poetry. In the Fourth, Mahler used the song “Das himmlische Leben” (The heavenly life) as the basis for the fourth and final movement. The song is often described as a child’s innocent vision of life in Heaven, and while the song is decidedly from a child’s point of view, Camilla Tilling, returning as the soprano soloist, severely questioned its purported innocence.

The opening was one of childlike wonder, with idyllic descriptions of angels leaping and dancing. Tilling emphasised the childish aspects of the song, looking increasingly like an excitable little girl onstage. By the second verse, the excitement was tinged with murderous glee, as John the Apostle led an innocent lamb to the slaughter and Aadland egged the orchestra into a frenzied dance. This movement is often merely sung, yet in her interpretation, Tilling was not afraid to uncover its dark and at times frightening aspects.